Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Exclusive Interview with Daniel Clay

I'm delighted to welcome Daniel Clay to my Blog, with insight into his poignant, quirky and funny book, Broken, now also a film starring Tim Roth.

I met Daniel at the Winchester Writers' Conference a few years ago, when I went to one of his talks. His words have stayed with me ever since on a number of levels - because his advice was so useful and revealing about the publishing industry and incredibly helpful to me starting out, but also because he was so honest about his own journey. Daniel is incredibly generous with his time and knowledge; he goes out of his way to help struggling writers and is one of those people who 'really' cares. I am one of the lucky ones to have been priveleged to benefit from his support.

As well as being nominated one of Amazon's best eight debut novels for 2008, Broken was shortlisted for The Commonwealth Writers' Best First Novel Award and The Authors' Club Best First Novel Award.

Daniel  was born in Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire, in 1970. He moved to Hampshire to set up home with his wife, Alison, in 1992. Although he has always been a passionate writer, his first short story wasn't published until 1998, and it would be another ten years before Harper Press bought the rights to his debut novel, Broken, in the UK.

The Story

      You thought your neighbours were bad? Wait till you meet the Oswalds. They're crass, cruel and seemingly untouchable. Until, that is, they go one step too far – and the results begin to tear an entire community apart.

      Skunk Cunningham is an eleven-year-old girl in a coma. She has a loving dad, an absent mother and a brother who plays more X-Box than is good for him. She also has the neighbours from hell: the five Oswald girls and their thuggish father Bob, vicious bullies all of them, whose reign of terror extends unchallenged over their otherwise quiet suburban street.

      And yet terrifying though they undoubtedly are, the stiletto-wearing, cider-swilling Oswald girls are also sexy – so when Saskia asks shy, virginal Rick Buckley for a ride in his new car, he can’t believe his luck. Too bad that Saskia can’t keep her big mouth shut. When, after a quick fumble, she broadcasts Rick’s deficiencies to anyone who will listen, it puts ideas into her younger sister’s silly head – ideas that will see Rick dragged off to prison, humiliated, and ultimately, in his father’s words ‘broken’ by the experience. From her hospital bed,

      Skunk tries to make sense of the events that follow, as Saskia’s small act of cruelty spreads through the neighbourhood in a web of increasing violence. As we inch closer to the mystery behind her coma, Skunk’s innocence becomes a beacon by which we navigate a world as comic as it is tragic, and as effortlessly engaging as it is ultimately uplifting, in this brilliant and utterly original debut novel.

Over to you, Daniel:

1. Who is your favourite character in ‘Broken’ and why?

Skunk’s my favourite character, simply because it’s her story, her voice and, pretty much, her world view that pushes the whole thing forwards. Even before I knew what the story was, I was really enjoying writing snippets of scenes from her point of view – not even scenes, really, just thoughts she was having about her brother or her dad or the as yet unnamed family of girls who were bullying her at school. I’ve never really had that experience with a character in anything else I’ve ever written.

2. How did you settle on the title for ‘Broken’?

When my agent got involved he didn’t like the title I’d been using up until then – and, as soon as he said why he wasn’t keen I could see his point – so we just swapped some e-mails with different ideas. I think my wife suggested Broken Hearted and either my agent or his assistant came back with Broken, which just seemed to fit. It’s funny the name came about that way because a lot of reviews (for both the book and the film) seem to feel the central theme is broken characters/broken families/broken society/Broken Britain, whereas that wasn’t really on my mind while I was writing it, and the title certainly wasn’t picked to highlight that theme; it was just the nickname for a major character and seemed to fit the book overall.

3. What's the nicest thing anyone has said about your book?

Someone recently posted a five-star review on Amazon that included the line ‘I will read anything this man writes, ever’, which was a really nice thing to read. I’ve seen a couple of reviews, though – on Goodreads, I think – where people have said it’s made them look at the world in a different way, and I guess, in a way, most people who write have that sort of ambition somewhere within them, so that’s always a nice thing to read.

4. What alternative title did you consider?

The novel was always called ‘It’s a Sin’ while I was working on it and submitting it to agents for representation. It seemed perfect for me because the whole premise of the novel was how much more ‘in your face’ modern society feels compared to the one depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird, and, of course, in To Kill a Mockingbird you have to wait till almost half way through the novel before you learn the whole mockingbird saying – it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird – so, to me, to have the more ‘in your face’ half of that saying as the title really appealed.

My agent had two problems with that title, though – Broken isn’t a story about sin, and each time he saw the title he had The Pet Shop Boys going around in his head. Both fair points, I thought, so we started to look for something new...

5. What is the hardest part of writing for you?

Pushing a story forwards – I love starting novels and I love rewriting but I do struggle to think, okay, time to stop changing commas into semi-colons now and actually try and write a new sentence…

6. What do you enjoy most about the writing process?

There’s a stage where I can get lost in what I’m doing, and that’s always what I’m trying to achieve – that intensity where I feel I’m in the story, not sitting at a desk in front of a laptop. For me, it usually happens when I’m writing a new scene that suddenly takes an unexpected direction, or when I’m redrafting and I’m suddenly just reading the story in a blur of words rather than thinking about the mechanics of what I’m trying to achieve.

7. Which novel do you wish you’d written?

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates or Stoner by John Williams. For me, they’re both incredibly powerful novels about incredibly ordinary people most of us wouldn’t pay any attention to if they happened to live over the road. I’d love to create something like that.

8. In the reviews and feedback you’ve had for the book – what has surprised you most?

How far around the world it’s gone. To me, it just seems to be such an English story – such a small town English story – that I couldn’t really imagine someone who’s never lived in England or only ever lived in an English city really understanding it, let alone a New Yorker or someone based in Rome, for instance. But the things people seem to identify with – Mr Jeffries’ frustrations with his career, Archie’s love for his daughter, frustration with the Oswalds – are universal, I guess, and these are the things international readers seem to pick up on. Even so, it still never ceases to amaze me that I’ve had really nice e-mails from readers in places such as Toronto, Rio, Sydney, Bombay and other faraway places like that.

9. Which authors would you invite over for dinner to get to know better?

Well, I guess as I’d really love to produce the sort of novels they both produced themselves, it would have to be Richard Yates and John Williams.

10. What questions would you want to make sure you asked them?

How many times did you nearly give up? And, on your deathbeds, did you ever regret all that time you spent away from your loved ones, trying to get a sentence just right? 

Thanks, Daniel, for taking the time to contribute to my blog!

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